Trump’s North Korea dilemma – are sanctions the way to go?

US officials say sanctions are key to denuclearisation, but how they would force change remains unexplained.

North Korea''s leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People''s Army
US officials say sanctions could force Kim Jong-un to back down on his nuclear programme [KCNA via Reuters]

One thing is clear about US President Donald Trump’s approach to North Korea.

He is clearly trying to send the message that he means business and that this could mean the US military gets involved. 

It’s not a subtle message to send an aircraft carrier strike group into the region. The president is anxious to send a message to North Korea and China that he is different and that his strategy will be as well.

So what is the strategy?

At the state department they are putting all of the emphasis on effective sanctions. They believe if sanctions are fully implemented, that could force a change from the North Korean leadership when it comes to its missile and nuclear weapon programme. 

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday where the idea of new sanctions will be talked about. 

READ MORE: Is war coming to North Korea?

A confusing comment came from down the road in Washington when Admiral Harry Harris testified before two congressional committees. He was repeatedly asked what the driving motivation for Pyongyang’s nuclear programme is. “Why does Kim Jung-un want a nuclear bomb?”

Harris’ answer was quite simple. He basically said that he believes not having the bomb would create an existential crisis for Kim. If that is what the US administration thinks Kim’s motivation is, it is not at all clear how they think sanctions would change what they present as a bedrock belief of the North Korean leader.

US officials keep pointing to Iran as the reason sanctions can work when it comes to negotiating a final deal over a nuclear programme. But there is a big difference between the two countries that the officials are not talking about.

Sanctions are meant to put pressure on governments. They are meant to put pressure on the people who then in turn put pressure on their leaders.

The Iranian leaders knew protests in the street were possible. They had just cracked down on a popular movement when they signed onto the nuclear deal with the US and other world powers in 2015. The growing threat of an uprising was incentive to bargain for nuclear relief. 

I have yet to find anyone at the state department who believes that the North Korean people are even close to revolting. We don’t know much about what is really happening in the country but every indication is that the government has been very effective clamping down on dissent.

There are many in Washington who question if the Trump administration really has a strategy when it comes to North Korea. Right now, officials say they do. So perhaps the better question to be asking is – does it actually make sense?      

Source: Al Jazeera